Prized for its translucency and the quality of reflecting ‘something like water inside’, jadeite continues to be the most sought-after gemstone in China. Senior specialist Fung Chiang offers an expert introduction, illustrated with pieces offered in Hong Kong Magnificent Jewels on 29 May
Jade or jadeite — what’s the difference?
The term ‘jade’ is actually a catch-all term that encompasses two separate minerals: nephrite, which is more opaque and traditionally used for sculptural objects and ornaments, and jadeite, which is more translucent and can be polished to a high lustre, making it more suitable for jewellery.
As senior specialist Fung Chiang explains, ‘In ancient China people believed that whatever the substance was, if you thought it was beautiful enough then you could call it jade. Now, however, there is technology that can look into the chemical and physical properties of a stone to discover whether it is jadeite or nephrite.’
When did jadeite become popular in China?
Unlike nephrite, which has been an important material in Chinese art for more than 1,000 years, jadeite only arrived from Burma in 1784. By the beginning of the 19th century it had become widely sought-after, its popularity perhaps due to the Empress Dowager Cixi, who was, as Chiang puts it, ‘a diehard fan’ of the stone.
‘This led to the officers and noblemen trying to amass as much as possible so that they could give it to her and wear it themselves,’ says Chiang, ‘which resulted in an astronomical rise in value.’
Today, due to limited production in Burma and its continued popularity among Chinese buyers, jade is still considered to be one of the ‘top gemstones’ in the Eastern market alongside coloured diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds.
Why is jadeite so prized?
One of the reasons jadeite is so prized for jewellery is what is referred to as its ‘water content’ in Chinese. ‘The crystalline structure of jade is finer, enabling rays of light to penetrate the stone more easily to create translucency,’ explains Chiang. ‘This creates a reflection and refraction, causing the viewer to see something like water inside the stone itself, which is what makes jadeite so special, and so valuable.’
How are jewellers able to create such intricate designs with jadeite?
When it comes to precious stones, it’s important to distinguish between toughness and hardness, says Chiang. ‘Diamond is the hardest material in the world, but it is brittle. Jadeite is much tougher. When you apply force on a ruby, a diamond or a sapphire, it will break into two pieces easily, but you can carve into jadeite or pierce it without breaking it into several pieces.’
Jewellers are therefore able to apply intricate designs onto jade, such as spiderweb or honeycomb motifs that would be impossible on other gemstones.
What does jade symbolise?
Prized by scholars and collectors for centuries, jade symbolised purity, knowledge and righteousness, as well as protection. ‘Many people still believe that when you wear jadeite it will protect you from getting hurt and bring you good health and wealth,’ says Chiang. ‘Chinese people are quite superstitious; we had a client a few years ago who told us that she had fallen over, but because she was wearing a jadeite bangle on her wrist the bangle broke and she didn’t get hurt at all.’
Does size matter?
There are only two sizes that matter in the jadeite market, says Chiang: ‘Simply put, these are small and large.’ Small generally indicates beads with a diameter between 8 and 11 mm, while large beads would range from 12 to 17 mm in diameter, or even more.
‘When we talk about large bead necklaces people generally refer to the biggest three or five pieces being over 15 or 16 mm in diameter, but you’ll often find that the beads close to the clasp are only 12 or 13 mm in diameter,’ says the specialist.
Truly remarkable pieces, he explains, are those that have beads of a uniform size. ‘The bead necklace is the most valuable and sought-after style of jadeite jewellery because it’s difficult to match the quality and size of the beads,’ Chain continues. ‘Last autumn we sold a necklace that was composed of 29 jadeite pieces, and every single one of them was 15 mm in diameter, which is very unusual. The estimate was HK$56.8 million, and the final price was HK$95 million — about $12 million.’
How important is colour?
Another contributing factor to value can be colour, explains Chiang: ‘Jadeite comes in many colours: green is the most familiar, but you can also find lavender, yellow, red, brown or even black or colourless stones.’ When it comes to green, there are myriad different tones that can affect the value of the stone. ‘Some greens are too dark or too greyish or too yellowish,’ says Chiang. ‘The best is what we call strict green, with the highest saturation and a medium to medium-dark tone so that it is almost like a vivid emerald green, also known as imperial green.’
How much does jadeite cost?
Unlike diamonds or other prized gemstones, the entry point to jadeite can start from as little as HK$ 1,000 (around US$ 128) but this won’t bring you the best quality, says Chiang.
‘It’s important to check that the jadeite has not been treated,’ he continues. ‘It has to be natural, untreated and from Burma. Budget is very important, but you also have to take into account other considerations such as colour, translucency and size. In China we have a saying, “Buy expensively but don't buy wrong.”’
Chiang also advises that, where possible, one should see jade pieces in person, to truly appreciate a stone’s beauty and changing nature. ‘Jadeite is very different to other gemstones. Diamonds, rubies and sapphires tend to reveal most of their characteristics under camera and still look visually appealing. But it’s really hard to take accurate pictures of jadeite. If you can, you should touch it and examine it under different lighting — under white light, sunlight, or yellow light, it all looks different.’